This section also features a photo from 1839 that became famous as the first selfie: the self-portrait of Philadelphian Robert Cornelius, made just months after Louis Daguerre announced his daguerreotype photographic process – and more than 150 years before the launch of the Iphone.
Divided into 11 thematic sections, the exhibition includes around 70 reproductions, some large enough to cover the large windows of the building’s south-west facade. The rest of the images rotate in slideshows on video screens.
“Not an Ostrich” is a kind of homecoming. All images come from the library’s collection, and the exhibition is the largest exhibition ever on these funds. But the show was organized by the Annenberg Foundation and originally mounted in 2018 at the Annenberg Space for Photography in Los Angeles. Curator Anne Wilkes Tucker visited the library monthly for a year and a half, inspecting what she estimated to be nearly a million images, many of which had not been digitized and had never been exhibited at the time.
The Library of Congress’ version of the exhibit includes work by more than 165 photographers – some anonymous, some famous, and one known for a completely different form of visual art: there are two photos by Stanley Kubrick, who was photographer for Look magazine before directing such films as “Dr. Strangelove” and “2001: A Space Odyssey.” One of Kubrick’s photos is an irresistibly bizarre family portrait of a bodybuilder, his wife and their 11-month-old son, who are performing a pull-up.
The library itself is shown in AC Vroman’s 1900 photo of the main building’s great hall. While this subject seems to have changed little today, Camilo José Vergara’s recent studies of working-class neighborhoods in New York bear witness to the change. The photographer shoots the same sites over and over as small buildings are converted to new uses, from shops to restaurants to churches in front of shops.
Another transitional story is told by a section that contrasts late 19th and early 20th century postcard images with images made by Carol M. Highsmith about a century later. The first were produced by Detroit Publishing Co., which pioneered the colorization of black and white travel scenes. Based in Washington for decades, Highsmith is best known locally for his photos of that region, but has photographed in all 50 states. She donated her output, over 100,000 images, to the Library of Congress.
Highsmith’s work often has a festive tone, but “Not an Ostrich” includes more edgy imagery. Notable examples include Danny Lyons’ 1964 photo of a Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee photographer who is grabbed by troops during a civil rights demonstration in Cambridge, Maryland, and the image well known to John Filo from the aftermath of the Kent State shooting six years later. .
Although the show only includes a few animal photos, they are as whimsical as the critter videos that later took over the internet. In a 1936 portrait of a tabby cat, the cat looks surprisingly optimistic while wearing a Germanic warrior helmet that could have come from a feline-scale Wagner opera. Also, there is a photo from 1930 in which British actress Isla Bevan is holding a large, fancifully feathered bird. No spoilers here, but library information indicates that the creature isn’t actually an ostrich.
Not an Ostrich: and Other Pictures from the American Library
Library of Congress, Thomas Jefferson Building, 10 First St. SE. 202-707-9779. loc.gov.
Appointment: Until fall 2024.
Admission: Free; timed passes required.